The Fire Last Time: Documentary and Politics in 1970s Britain | Steve Edwards | Wednesday, 18.10.2017

Production, Collectives and Skill

One pervasive theoretical problem running throughout the radical aesthetic work of the 1970s, and it is retained in much recent commentary, involves recoding Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” as a matter of attentive viewing or reading, with the avant-garde ‘text’ at its heart. However, in his important intervention Benjamin was concerned with turning readers into worker correspondents, that is to say, producers. The point of the “Author as Producer” was to reject the passive reception aesthetics of the Communist movement in favour of productivism. However, most of the political-modernist accounts of the 1970s transcoded Benjamin’s productivism into a sort of alert reception theory. Similarly, interest in Alexander Rodchenko’s often cited argument for creating a photography centred on new points of view systematically ignores the most significant contribution to that debate, namely Sergei Tretyakov’s insistence that a radical project of photography had to be centred on use – “the whole range of utilitarian goals confronting photography” – and not either ‘raw facts’ or formal innovation. 1The Soviet photo debate appears in Christopher Phillips (ed.), Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940 (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aperture, 1989). Tretyakov’s contribution “From the Editor’” appears on pages 270–2. Tretyakov’s argument proved fundamental to the developing aesthetics of Brecht and Benjamin. 2Hans Magnus Enzensberger reiterated the point in his “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” (1970). This post deals with attempts to change production relations in British documentary during the 1970s. As Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson wrote of their photo-history project in Ruislip: “The aim is not to seek consumers of radical culture/ideology but to generate producers.” 3Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson, “Adjusting Culture to Practical Functions: Reflections and Projections”, Control Magazine (No. 10, 1977), 6.

(153912)Exhibition in Central Brixton about the Villa Road squat, Camerawork (No. 13, 1979), 6

Many of the accounts of post-conceptual documentary photography have followed Jeff Wall and John Roberts and focussed on ‘deskilling’ and ‘amateurism’. 4Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art”, in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975, eds. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer (The MIT Press, 1995), 246–67; John Roberts, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966–1976 (Camerawords, 1997), 66. These critics argue that Conceptual artists abandoned the aesthetic of the fine photograph, drawing on vernacular documents as ‘ready-mades’. The aim, we are told, was to generate new allegories of attention. However, this argument focuses on the form of presentation in the gallery to the exclusion of modes of production. While this may make sense of the work of Ed Ruscha, Dan Graham and some others, in the context of British political documentary of the period, I would argue vernacular deskilling has been largely misunderstood. In fact, this is not so much deskilling as equipping new subjects with techniques and providing access to the production apparatus. It is better described as a process of ‘upskilling’. Significant strands in the new documentary attempted to include their subjects in the production process; to draw the work out of dialogue with those represented. This directly parallels the work of The Medvedkin Group in France, recapturing a critical impetus of the workers photo and film movements of the 1930s. It was central to the work of Augusto Boal whose work and influence I’ll discuss below. The workshop movement in the UK was engaged in a similar dynamic exchange of knowledge and subjectivity. Documentary producers in the 1970s experimented with collaborative production and independent forms of distribution and exhibition. This ‘collectivism’ after modernism has been theorised in recent art, but while the practice was discussed in other terms during the 1970s, it was probably a stronger trend then than now. 5Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (eds.), Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945 (University of Minnesota Press, 2007); also the issue of Third Text on “Art and Collaboration”, ed. John Roberts and Stephen Wright (No. 18, 2004).

Photography Workshop was not an isolated phenomenon. The workshop movement (sometimes these groups were called coops or co-operatives) began to emerge in Britain from the late 1960s, but it developed incrementally during the 1970s. In each case the groups sought to provide skills and equipment for acts of self-representation by the dispossessed and marginalised. There were photography workshops, community darkrooms, film workshops, poster workshops, theatre workshops and writer’s workshops. Perhaps, the model was the History Workshop (HW) movement, which emerged from Ruskin College in 1967. 6Raphael Samuel, “History Workshop, 1966–80” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. idem (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981); Anna Davin, “The Only Problem Was Time”, History Workshop (No. 50, 2000), 239–45. Ruskin was an independent college in Oxford, named after the social critic John Ruskin; its aim was to provide adult education. In particular, the organisation became associated with education for trade union activists. In the absence of substantive histories of the workshop movement, I draw on the experience of HW to provide a flavour of these other organisations. An initiative of the energetic and influential Raphael Samuel, the HW movement developed groups around the country to produce socialist history. These local groups often combined professional historians or teachers of history with working class activists to develop ‘history form below’. In addition to the important journal, History Workshop and associated book series, the movement published thirteen pamphlets (often written by non-professional historians). One such pamphlet from 1973 lists twenty-six HW regional groups; most were in London or Oxford, but there were outposts in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and even North Wales. In addition, there was an annual gathering in Oxford, which by the mid-1970s drew audiences of nearly one thousand people. By the early 1970s feminists played a central role in HW, both criticising male-centred history and recovering the lives of women who had been hidden from history. In 1979, the Art and Society sub-group of HW organised a workshop on Realism. Jo Spence was one of the organisers and a session was dedicated to documentary in Britain and the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. As the presence of Spence indicates, there was a great deal of interchange between these groups.

These workshops in photography and film were not focused on avant-garde techniques, but on changing the labour process. The workshop movement provided equipment and training to community and activist groups and individuals who had access to neither. That is to say, this was an engagement with the division of labour and hierarchy of skills; often involving collaboration with non-specialists; access to technology or distribution networks; and new forms of exhibition. The project involved equipping new subjects with techniques and providing access to the production apparatus. Ann Guedes of Cinema Action has noted that they inherited state-of-the-art equipment – Steenbecks (editing suites), double-head projectors, Nagras (audio recorders), Eclairs (cameras): “everything you could wish for”, she said. 7Ann Guedes, Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s (Focal Point Gallery, 2013), 66. For her, one of their most important achievements was to provide others with access to this expensive equipment. As Paul Carter, who set up Blackfriars photography project, wrote: “Community photography makes photography relevant to local people by making them the main subjects, audience and users of the photographs produced.” 8Paul Carter, "Photography for the Community", Camerawork (No. 13, 1979), 2. What is more, these collectives tried to develop independent networks of distribution and exhibition designed to create active engagement with the issues raised. Photography exhibitions were staged in a range of non-conventional venues including pubs and laundrettes.

(153913)Paul Carter, Display for Lanhill and Maryland's Tenants Association, Camerawork (No. 13, 1979), 3

The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974) by the London Women’s Film Group involved the crew revolving through the roles and specialist tasks of film-making, breaking down the division of labour and learning the diverse techniques involved. With no director, each member of the group worked with the camera, sound equipment, lighting and they engaged in editing. At the time, women occupied a limited number of roles in the film industry – mainly in the lower grades – secretarial work, negative cutting and continuity jobs. For the Group this collaborative approach gave women access to the means of production, developing skills and incorporating new points of view into the cinema. Theoreticians have ignored this dimension of the Brechtian project, because they have been focused on formal innovation, rather than transforming production. As one slogan of the Dziga Vertov Group had it, “the problem is not to make political films but to make films politically”. 9Dziga Vertov Group, cited in Colin MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (British Film Institute, 1980), 19. That was sometimes taken to mean making avant-garde films, but that is not the point. Providing access to technology, transforming who was represented and allowing new subjects to represent their own lives, providing skills for women: this too is modernist labour.

(153914)Jo Spence and Terry Dennett at a Photography Workshop event, Covent Garden, London, c. 1975

Spence is undoubtedly a central figure in the impetus of the new documentary; Photography Workshop productivism is dedicated to this kind of upskilling, working with local people in East London or children’s groups. She tried to close the gap between workers and media specialists, recapturing a critical impetus of the workers photo and film movements of the 1930s. The organisations she was involved with – Half Moon Photography Workshop (HMPW) and Camerawork – provided access to darkrooms and training, running documentary projects on local history; Spence also wrote popular instruction manuals. The photographs by Spence and Dennett formed one part of an exemplary activist practice aimed at enabling ordinary people to generate their own histories. They were not alone in this. The workshop movement throughout the UK was engaged in providing resources and skills to community groups and activists (we need to distinguish this activity from Public Art, with which it crosses, but from which it remains distinct). 10Su Braden, Committing Photography (Pluto, 1983). Dennett/Spence worked to create critical institutions of photography – part of what Alan Sears has called an ‘infrastructure of dissent’. 11Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood, 2014).

Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood, 2014).

Jessica Evans has noted that much of this ‘community photography’, as this work was often called, assumed that the community “has self-transparent access to its ‘real needs’”. 12Jessica Evans, “Introduction”, in The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography, ed. idem (Rivers Oram, 1997), 28. This kind of Labourism was undoubtedly a strong current and much left documentary was, as the critics have it, ‘arid’ or ‘boring’, but such criticisms tend to miss the processual, productivist dimension of this work. As Jorge Ribalta has emphasised with regard to the 1930s, the practice of self-representation along with alternative modes of production and distribution were as pivotal to photographic modernism as the work on the image. 13Jorge Ribalta (ed.), The Worker Photography Movement (1926–1939): Essays and Documents (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2015); Ribalta, “The Strand Symptom: A Modernist Disease?”, Oxford Art Journal (No. 38, 2015), 55–7. Without the transformation of production relations the first revolution is a project for intellectuals. At a basic level, the images aren’t the point. The workshop project of the 1970s was, at heart, a project of radical pedagogy, teaching photography as a way of engaging in political discussion and learning about media and ideology. 14Compare with the History Workshop. Don Slater recognised this in a very perceptive essay titled “Community Photography” in Camerawork No. 20 (1980). If Slater’s text tends to an ideal version of the practice, he nonetheless grasped the potential transferential dimension, which has been woefully ignored. As the frequent invocation of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal should indicate, the production of images are a part, but only a part, of the process involving “working class amateur photographers”. 15Boal is repeatedly cited by Spence as one of her primary theoretical resources. The reference to working-class amateurism is from the ‘Editorial’of The Worker Photographer (No. 1, 1979), printed in The Worker Photography Movement (1926–1939), ed. Jorge Ribalta, 201.

The photographers and filmmakers who engaged in this dimension of political practice have received much less critical attention than those committed to elaborating a new formal language. As much as I like Siona Wilson’s recent book, I think she too detaches formally inventive practitioners from this pedagogical movement. 16Siona Wilson, Art Labor, Sex Politics. Feminist Effects in 1970s Britain Art and Performance (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Wilson, for instance, asks why Jo Spence hasn’t been picked up in critical circles, but she immediately switches from the work of the Hackney Flashers and Camerawork to Spence’s Remodelling Photo History. The problem is an emphasis on the individual artwork at the expense of collective production. That shift from Camerawork to Remodelling Photo History – as much as I appreciate the latter – is the story of a little defeat.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the historical treatment of the radical work of the 1970s has engaged that work with later theoretical resources. In the process, the collectivist pedagogy is largely passed over. For instance, no one seems to have noticed the central theoretical place occupied by Augusto Boal in the practice of Spence and Photography Workshop; his work is cited approvingly on various occasions. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is no longer read, which is a great pity; it is a marvellous book. Beginning from a critique of Aristotle, Machiavelli and Hegel, Boal radicalises Brecht’s practice as a form of Marxist pedagogy. Theatre of the Oppressed was published in Spanish in 1974 and an English translation didn’t appear until 1979. Nevertheless, the ideas were in wide circulation. Traditional theatre, Boal claimed, involved a finalised spectacle, because “the bourgeoisie already knows what the world is like, their world”. 17Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (Pluto Press, 2008), 120. Boal argued: “I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves may utilise them.” 18ibid, 98. A truly working-class theatre would be a theatre of rehearsal rather than a performance of spectacle. The learning that took place would be a rehearsal for revolution. Theatre of the Oppressed also contains several pages of exercises on using photography as a learning tool with illiterate workers in Lima. In critical debate this dimension of transferential pedagogy was given much less attention than the formal challenges and transformations of the subject. It is nevertheless an important dimension of Brecht’s own practice. The concentration on Brecht’s alienation effect misses the extent to which he was concerned, not with reception, certainly not with critical readers, but with production. In fact, he claimed that theatre as a model of learning applied first to the company: writers, director, actors, electricians and so forth. His company, the Berliner Ensemble, engaged in protracted rehearsals; sometimes the plays were never even staged. This was a collective laboratory for writing and acting, a way of generating attitudes and gestures. Boal shifted the emphasis from professional actors to a theatre by and for the poor and illiterate. As he frequently said: “If theatre was not the revolution, it “is surely a rehearsal for the revolution”. 19ibid, 98. Photography Workshop conceived their photographic activity in the same vein.

(153915)Hackney Flashers, Women and Work in Hackney, 1975
(153916)Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, The Present Day Creates History at Ruislip, March 1977, from Control Magazine (No. 10, 1977), 7
(153917)Shelter, Priorities for Housing Action, Report 2. North Islington Housing Rights Project, 1973

In opposition to those histories that focus on Conceptual art and photography, I argue that the form of appearance of works by Photography Workshop, The Hackney Flashers, Cockpit Arts Workshop and, perhaps, the Women and Work group, emerge directly out of these concerns with radical pedagogy, the labour process, access and distribution. Rather than attempts to parody or parallel low photographic modes, these are works shaped by the institutions in which they were to be viewed. These works consist of cheaply produced information boards, intended for display in community spaces, schools and trade-union meeting rooms, rather than art galleries. These display boards needed to be duplicated at minimal cost; transported and installed without specialist handling. All that is required are cardboard panels and drawing pins, some black and white photographs and handwritten or typed out comments; even protective lamination was a luxury. As Spence noted, she often sent an exhibition by train, “for hanging at a meeting the next morning, so you had to have them laminated”. 20Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture (Camden Press, 1986), 204–5. The boards are pedagogic in address, drawing on models familiar to their audience. They were shaped by trade union and municipal spaces, community spaces, schools and meeting rooms, rather than art galleries. In this sense, the critique that sees ‘information’ as homologous with bureaucratic culture seems misconceived, at least for these works. 21Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, October (No. 55, 1990), 105–43; Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (The MIT Press, 2004).

During the 1970s a network of documentary practices and institutions necessary to imagining class began to emerge and could have constituted a significant component of a strategy of hegemony. As I suggested in my last post, many of these organisations limped on into the mid or even late 1980s. One central (fatal) problem was that that this activity relied on state and local authorities for funding rather than structures of autonomy, leaving itself open to shifting political agendas. This perspective – municipal socialism – was in retreat after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. 22Trisha Ziff’s essay “Working for the Council” in Photography/Politics: One is revealing here. To depend on the capitalist state for resources while pursuing a socially transformative perspective was never likely to be a winning strategy. Political confidence was already draining away, but when the Arts Council shifted gear in 1980 and the Greater London Council was shut down by the Conservative’s Local Government Act of 1985, this nascent structure of feeling was left homeless. 23Camerawork registered the funding shift in 1980, but it did not lead to a major re-evaluation: “Editorial”, Camerawork (No. 21, 1981), 1. For this analysis see Duncan Forbes’s comments in Jorge Ribalta (ed.), Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2015), 73–4. When combined with various strands of post-structuralism, the effect was withdrawn into the gallery and classroom. Too often this has been presented as a matter of intellectual conviction rather than a structural transformation in institutions and funding regimes. While the new mood brought important developments, paths taken were undoubtedly overdetermined by the ‘experience of defeat’; in that context a political perspective unravelled. The hard-left’s antipathy to cultural politics ensured the demise of this valuable project. The strategy withered on the vine.

(153918)Terry Dennett, "Print That Neg.", Illustrated by Ed Barber, Camerawork (No. 5, 1977)

Nevertheless, for a period the workshop movement was a strong component of radical documentary practice, engaging in critical learning with working-class and minority ethnic groups. The practice involved in a serious attempt to rethink the division of labour and hierarchy of skills through collaboration with non-specialists; it provided access to technology and sought distribution networks and new forms of exhibition. Novel forms of display might involve showing work outside of traditional venues, but also involve attempts to directly engage with the audience. There are important ways in which the approach parallels the Alternative Economic Strategy developed at the Greater London Council. Recent theoretical discussions have paid a lot of attention to the labour process debates and workers’ inquiries in Italy, but there seems to be little recognition of the British initiatives in theory and practice ranging from Radical Science Journal, the Conference for Socialist Economics to the work of Colin Barker/Tony Cliff, Huw Beynon and Mike Cooley. The Lucas plan and the Workers’ Report on Vickers are as substantial as anything of the period. Spence was a central figure in carrying these debates into photography, but she was far from alone. It is about time we revisited those experiments and discussions. The textualist or formalist emphasis on the role of the critical viewer or reader may just be another way of stressing the role of the critic. As Brecht famously said: “They are … enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable.” 24Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht”, in Understanding Brecht (New Left Books, 1977), 118.